Word on the street is that Roland Emmerich’s 2012, in which tectonic calamity engulfs the Earth in fire and floods, is the highest-grossing film ever at the UAE box office (aside from Titanic, which doesn’t count –
that beat everything, everywhere). Emmerich, who also directed The Day After Tomorrow, tells Time Out his secret formula for creating the perfect disaster movie.
1 When you’ve got the idea, head to the internet ‘You can pretty much get everything off there now. Interestingly, if you put “2012” into the Amazon search engine, you get thousands of books all about this
one date. They’re all called things like 2012: The Awakening or Apocalypse 2012. It’s wild.’
2 Be creative with the science ‘I always wanted to do a biblical flood movie, but I never felt I had the hook. I first read about the Earth’s Crust Displacement Theory in Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods. When I discussed it with Harald [Kloser, his writing partner], I explained we needed a “plausible” reason, not a scientific one. Show this film to a scientist and they would probably laugh.’
3 Build on past experience ‘I covered the theme a little in my first movie, The Principle of Noah’s Ark, about the space shuttle programme. It was also about morality and what you can and can’t do in these situations.’
4 Use a political angle ‘Politicians are good people, but they have a dilemma. They make their decisions secretly because if they told people that the apocalypse was nigh, no one would be saved.’
5 Get your metaphors into line ‘Our biggest problem for this film was deciding who Noah was. We knew that God had to be science, because you can’t have the voice of God booming down, saying, “You’re all doomed!” At first we thought it should be some billionaire like Bill Gates, but we decided that was a little too James Bond. Then it comes back to the White House, because in an American movie, there’s nothing more powerful than the White House.’
6 Don’t fear cod-religiosity ‘We decided that what people do in a crisis is that they start praying. Even the most religion-hating person would get down on their knees and ask God for salvation. Yes, it’s good to be spiritual, but praying in the face of disaster will not stop the disaster. Fate, luck and coincidence might help you survive, but not prayer. We show this in a scene in the Sistine Chapel where we create a big crack in the fresco of God and Adam. And then the whole church falls onto a big crowd.’
7 Cast a nerd ‘My next movie’s going to star Woody Allen. No, only joking! Luckily, I make movies where the movie itself is the star, so the studios allow me to cast people you wouldn’t always associate with this kind of film. So here we have John Cusack.’
8 Digital effects are your friend ‘I love working with visual-effects artists, and I don’t ever think I’ll make a lo-fi movie. I love to go to the people who really, you know, “do it”. I have no fear of that.’
9 Don’t be afraid of the three-hour mark ‘This movie is as long [two hours, 38 minutes] as it has to be. Whenever you test a movie, people always say, “It’s just 15 minutes too long” – so you cut it. You show it to them again and they say, “It’s still a bit too long” – so you cut another 10 minutes. Then you end up cutting all the things that make it really great. The 10 most successful movies of all time are all around three hours long. My favourite movie, Lawrence of Arabia, is four hours. So there!’
10 Be confident! ‘I’m not just saying this, I think this is the best cast I’ve ever had. Why? Because it’s a really good script. I know I wrote it, but it just feels good. Harald and I wrote 10,000 BC and I’m willing to admit it was not a good script. Actually, it was a good script at first, but we made too many compromises. So I said to Harald, “This time, no compromises.” And he said, “Roland, I’m so happy you said that.” ’
Interview by David Jenkins. 2012 is still in cinemas, and probably will be until next summer (although we wholeheartedly hope not).